Kevin Keegan exploded during a live Sky Sports broadcast on 29 April 1996, providing one of the most iconic moments in Premier League history – his unforgettable ‘love it’ meltdown.
The ‘mind games’ that soon became normalised as Alex Ferguson took on and defeated Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez are now part and parcel of every title race. These days, media attempts to heighten or invent the same kind of drama and ill-feeling between the likes of Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, which doesn’t exactly exist, all stem from Fergie and Kev.
Psychological battles have existed since the dawn of sport, but Ferguson was a master at using words to his advantage. Back them, in what were still the early years of the Premier League and the associated media coverage, ‘mind games’ as we know them hadn’t really been established.
Keegan, an emotional man who always wore his heart on his sleeve anyway, walked right into it.
Newcastle had enjoyed a stunning start to the 1995/96 Premier League season and were on course to win a first league title in 69 years. The Magpies survived a minor blip in December and by 20 January 1996 were 12 points clear of Manchester United, who were level with Liverpool.
But things soon started to unravel. United’s young team that had struggled in November and December hit their stride, guided by the return to form of Eric Cantona following the end of his long-term suspension the previous October. Newcastle, meanwhile fell apart under the pressure.
In eight Premier League games from 21 February to 3 April, the Magpies won just twice, taking only seven points from a possible 24. That included a narrow defeat to their rivals at St James’ Park in March, a game defined by Peter Schmeichel’s heroics and a Cantona winner.
In the same window, United rivals took 22 points from the same number of games. The lead that had been 12 points was completely wiped out and Newcastle were pushed into second.
What Set Keegan Off?
That’s the background of the title race, but what specifically set Keegan off that fateful evening on Sky’s Monday Night Football centred around each club’s game against Leeds in April.
Leeds were languishing in mid-table that season and title winning manager Howard Wilkinson was under pressure. United, who had been beaten by Southampton in the infamous half-time kit change game, a few days earlier beat Leeds 1-0 at Old Trafford. Despite the win, they had struggled to make the breakthrough against a 10-man team with defender Lucas Radebe deputising in goal.
The result prompted Ferguson to question the integrity of the Leeds players, labelling them ‘pathetic’. The boss claimed, “They raised their game because they were playing Manchester United. We can accept any club coming here and trying their hardest, so long as they do it every week.”
With Newcastle due to face Leeds themselves 12 days later, Keegan saw it is a direct attack.
The other strand to the eventual tirade included a specific reference to Stuart Pearce, whose Nottingham Forest were due to play Newcastle in the Premier League as well as in a testimonial for the England defender. Ferguson’s intimation that the clubs’ close relationship relating to the friendly might see Forest go easy on Newcastle in the league riled Keegan up even further.
“I think Alex Ferguson came out prior to the game and said with Newcastle taking a team to Nottingham Forest…I think he sort of mentioned that we wouldn’t be trying and we’d prefer Newcastle to win,” Pearce told Sky Sports many years later in 2015.
The Meltdown Itself
#OTD 24 years ago: One of the most iconic moments in @premierleague history.— 90min (@90min_Football) April 29, 2020
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After a solitary Keith Gillespie goal gave Newcastle the same narrow 1-0 win over Leeds that United had managed, Keegan was determined to highlight what he saw as underhand comments from his counterpart down in Manchester.
“I think you’ve got to send Alex Ferguson a tape of this game, haven’t you? Isn't that what he asked for?” Keegan began on Sky’s live broadcast.
“When you do that with footballers like he said about Leeds…and when you do things like that about a man like Stuart Pearce...I’ve kept really quiet but I’ll tell you something, he went down in my estimations when he said that. We have not resorted to that.
“You can tell him now, we're still fighting for this title and he's got to go to Middlesbrough and get something. And I'll tell you, honestly, I will love it if we beat them. Love it.”
What Happened Next?
At that stage, Newcastle trailed United by three points but had a game in hand – the clash with Pearce’s Forest. If they won it, the two clubs would be level on points heading into the final day, with United away at Middlesbrough and Newcastle at home to Tottenham.
But Newcastle lost their chance when Forest held them to a draw – Ian Woan cancelled out Peter Beardsley’s first half strike with just 15 minutes to go.
That put United firmly in the driving seat, reducing what they needed on the final day from a win to a single point. They got it comfortably, with Ryan Giggs wrapping up a 3-0 victory. Newcastle, meanwhile, faltered again to doubly ensure no final day twist, held 1-1 by Spurs.
United ultimately finished four points clear of Newcastle and went on to complete a domestic double by winning the 1996 FA Cup final against Liverpool a week later.
United and Newcastle once more finished first and second respectively the following season, although Keegan wasn’t there to see it through. He resigned in January 1997 with Newcastle in fourth place and struggling to keep pace after a disastrous November and December.
Source : 90min